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The Globe and Mail

Parliamentary watchdogs concerned with backbenchers’ disclosure bill

Conservative MP Mark Adler is followed by journalists as he leaves a commons privacy and ethics committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, February 25, 2014.


Canada's parliamentary watchdogs are raising doubts about a Conservative backbencher's proposed new law that would force them to disclose certain partisan activities.

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand and Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson each testified at a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, saying they support the principle of greater disclosure but have concerns about Toronto-area MP Mark Adler's private member's bill, C-520.

Parts of the bill are too vaguely worded and will create confusion and overlap with existing laws that already guard against conflicts of interest, the trio told the committee. They also warned that the bill could make it tougher to recruit staff and open the door to frivolous complaints.

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Mr. Adler's bill would require people applying to be an agent of Parliament – a watchdog role, such as those who testified Tuesday – to disclose whether they'd held politically partisan positions in the previous decade.

More broadly, it would require staff in each of those watchdogs' offices to pledge to conduct themselves in a "non-partisan manner," though opposition critics say the bill does nothing to define what would be considered too partisan.

Also speaking to the committee on Tuesday, Mr. Adler said the bill was all about transparency, and applies equally to all parties. "For the life of me, I can't understand why anybody would be against transparency," he said. During questioning, however, he declined to cite examples of cases where partisanship has gotten in the way of watchdogs' duties, and then left proceedings holding a phone to his ear and declining to answer reporters' questions about the bill.

Opposition critics note the governing Conservatives have frequently clashed with some of the watchdogs, include Mr. Mayrand. He, Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Dawson also delivered the committee a letter signed by other parliamentary officers raising concerns about the bill.

"There are a number of parts of the bill that I think would be problematic and could be a concern," Mr. Ferguson said, adding the bill "may produce unintended consequences."

Ms. Dawson pointed to the powers, which the bill would put into law, for people to complain that an officer of Parliament acted in a partisan manner without any evidence. "Under this act, nobody needs to think up reasonable grounds. They can just fling mud," she said. Further, the law may go too far in demanding disclosure from all staff members in each office. "In all of these cases, there may not be a strong enough reason [to infringe on privacy], in my view," Ms. Dawson said.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said Stephen Harper supports Mr. Adler's bill.

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"The bill reflects, and builds on, the principles of transparency and accountability that guide our government.… the public has a right to know whether or not the agents, or those who work in these offices, have engaged in political activities," Jason MacDonald said in an e-mail.

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